Travel, Food & Drink

Invitation Only: Dining at the World’s Most Exclusive Restaurants

Some restaurants are so sought after they don’t need to operate a booking system or to welcome new customers. So how can you secure a table? Luxury Defined investigates

Japan is famous for its near-impossible-to-book restaurants. They are places like Yanagiya, Matsukawa and Sushi Saito—and are known as “ichigen-san okotowari,” which translates to “no first-time customers.” The first of these, which is thought by some to be the world’s best restaurant, is in a mountain town outside the city of Nagoya. It’s not quite in the middle of nowhere, but it’s quite a trek.

Typically, restaurants such as these will contact their regulars every three months and offer them slots. The regulars book the slots and that will be that. People outside this system might get incredibly lucky and chance on a spare table, but it’s unlikely. If you’re not a regular, getting a table probably means finding your way in via someone in your network of friends and contacts.

So why is this common in Japan? Food critic Andy Hayler says that some of it is likely down to the size of many high-end Japanese restaurants. “They will often only have 10 or 14 covers,” he says. In Japan, he adds, there is an expectation that if a chef’s name is over the door, the chef will be cooking for you, rather than appearing on TV and/or opening franchises elsewhere.

It takes 10 years of training to become a sushi chef master. The chef pictured is using a bamboo mat, fresh and cooked ingredients, and nori seaweed sheets to create his dish. Source: Getty Images

It also relies on another element of Japanese culture, which is that you absolutely show up for a restaurant booking. In fact, not honoring a booking is a matter of shame, so restaurants can expect a very low no-show rate. In places such as the U.S. and U.K., by contrast, no-show rates run between 10 and 20 percent (estimates vary), even for Michelin-starred restaurants.

Japan’s invite-only restaurants aren’t necessarily expensive. They may be quite simple places serving grilled meats, for example. But what they share is that they can fill any table, any time. And so, says Hayler, “a booking system becomes an unnecessary cost. Why run one when you don’t have to?”

But what about outside Japan? The answer is that similar places do exist, but they are much less of a cultural mainstay. Some, such as Yamakase in Los Angeles, are similar to what you find in Japan. But others are uniquely of their place. Rao’s, a New York institution, has been like this since 1977 when a stellar New York Times review catapulted it into the dining stratosphere.

External view of Rao's restaurant in New York
Rao’s restaurant opened in 1896 and is one of the U.S.’s oldest family-owned and -operated restaurants. Running in its original location of East Harlem, the restaurant prides itself on serving simple, authentic Italian food. Source: Alamy

Regulars are assigned tables—and there are no reservations. However, regulars can give their table rights to someone else. So, your best bet is to know a regular. Internet chatter also suggests that some of the city’s better-connected concierges may have an in, although there’s a lot of uncertainty around this.

For the truly determined, the surest route is via the charities that Rao’s supports. Reservations are sometimes offered at charity auctions. These lots always go for thousands of dollars and are rumoured to have reached $20,000. For those less concerned with culinary terroir, Rao’s also has sister restaurants in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, which can be reserved more conventionally.

Of course, there are also members’ clubs, such as Soho House, which operate a joining fee and subscription model. These are different because the point of them is usually somewhere to drink and socialise, and food is secondary. That said, there are also clubs that grew out of restaurants, such as the Ivy Club in London and those whose offering has more of a food slant, such as Core in New York, which is also opening branches in San Francisco and Milan.

Luxurious lounge with dark walls and chandelier, Soho House, London
Since first opening in London in 1995, Soho House now runs 33 houses in 14 countries, with more planned in Europe, Asia, and North America. The lounge pictured is 76 Dean Street—the second house opened in Soho, London. Credit: Alamy

Whether a restaurant seeks to become exclusive or not, any popular restaurant can end up going down the route of being difficult to book simply by having enough regular customers. And, if you’re not already a regular, it’s almost impossible to become one.

Establishments ranging from London’s Chiltern Firehouse to the Costa Brava’s El Bulli to Copenhagen’s Noma have enjoyed this status over the years. Shortly before it closed, El Bulli’s chef Ferran Adrià said they received two million reservation requests a year and only 8,000 people got a table, while Noma would get 22,000 people logging on to its reservation system when it released new tables.

This points to another source of impossible reservations. People will sometimes sell reservations on websites such as eBay and Facebook. Hayler says that he knows of a Norwegian businessman who paid $2,545 for an El Bulli reservation—roughly 10 times the cost of a meal. The only risk here is the restaurant may not like this approach to securing a table.

The unobtrusive entrance to El Bulli restaurant in Spain, an ivy-covered building
Voted top in Restaurant magazine’s 50 best restaurants in the world five times, El Bulli took all bookings for the year in a one day. Overlooking Cala Montjoi bay in Spain, it closed in 2011 and reopened as a creativity centre in 2014. Credit: Alamy

One company that is trying to do something about this issue of bookings is online marketplace Rezexe, which launched in June, and allows people to trade restaurant reservations. There’s careful vetting to ensure the reservations, buyers, and sellers are legitimate, and it is done with the restaurants’ blessing. Rezexe takes a commission, and the restaurants can also take a cut, should they choose to.

CEO and founder Ross Ivers says Rezexe is starting in the UK. “Currently, we’re seeing interest from one-star, two-star places, and other high-end restaurants.” The business model mostly focuses on reducing no-shows and providing restaurants with another income stream. But, says Ivers: “We’d love to deal with the impossible-to-reserve restaurants—and create a channel for people to get into these.”

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